By Chris Nixon, Union Tribune
Pete Townshend windmills: 79. Trademark Roger Daltrey microphone twirls: 6. Townshend jumps (back-scratcher style): 4. The Who rock the ipayOne Center: Priceless.
Thirty years ago, you could have quadrupled those numbers at a performance of The Who, adding a smashed guitar, a dismantled drum set and countless shattered eardrums to the ledger.
As the near-capacity ipayOne Center crowd stood to acknowledge the two rock icons at the end of a two-hour set Thursday night, the number of back-scratchers and windmills mattered little.
For a couple of hours, Daltrey – celebrating his 63rd birthday – and the 61-year-old Townshend transformed the audience of mostly baby boomers back into youngsters. The years seemed to melt away from the surviving two members of The Who as the reconstituted version slammed into extended versions of "Baba O'Riley" and "My Generation" (including a portion of "Cry If You Want" from 1982's "It's Hard" album).
Daltrey's guttural, masculine vocals haven't declined a bit in the last decade and Townshend continues to defy his age. The cagey Rock and Roll Hall of Famers drew from the youth of their solid backing band, temporarily reaching the heights of past Who performances. But at times the surgical reconstruction of the classics muddled the brief bursts of passion and musical exploration.
"Let's give it up to the people who've done an amazing reconstruction job," bantered guitarist Townshend between songs Thursday night. The audience acknowledged the backing band as each took a bow: bassist Pino Palladino (subbing for longtime bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002), guitarist Simon Townshend (subbing on backing vocals for his brother Pete), keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick (the longest-tenured musician in the band behind Daltrey and Townshend) and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son filling in admirably for the departed Keith Moon).
This band of substitutes held its ground (especially the younger Townshend brother), but failed to capture the spark of the original lineup. Palladino's bass solo in "My Generation" paled next to the Entwistle original. And Starkey, despite flourishes of electricity, played on the safe side compared with Moon's reckless abandon on the drums.
The renewed Who fired off three early tunes to start: "I Can't Explain," "The Seeker" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." The initial momentum slowed to a standstill as Townshend indulged himself in 11 tracks from the 2006 album "Endless Wire," including a six-song excerpt from the recent mini-opera "Wire & Glass" midshow.
Walking the fine line between new material and recognizable tunes, mainstays such as "You Better You Bet" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" rejuvenated the congregation of hard-core fans. For the encore, Daltrey and Townshend revisited the rock opera "Tommy" for a four-song medley before closing with the sweet acoustic tune "Tea & Theater."
With top ticket prices reaching almost $200 (the low end was $60), Daltrey and Townshend missed an opportunity to turn a whole new generation of fans onto their music.
But these rock 'n' roll survivors still hold a unique place in our collective heart. Like aging uncles you've known and loved through the years, Daltrey and Townshend have stood the test of time. And for one chilly March night in San Diego, The Who captured the imagination of the boomer audience and recaptured some of their heyday luster.